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^1961, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York 






The following pages are addressed to Museum 
visitors who find themselves unprepared for a confrontation 
with the new language of contemporary art. Traditionally ac- 
customed to the notion that a painting is an easily recognizable 
rendition of landscape, figure, or still-life, many of us are 
startled by the absence of these time-honored images. Equally 
difficult is an attempt to adjust to the frequent distortions of 
recognizable subject matter. 

What is the meaning of paintings in which subject 
matter is contorted or missing? Are such works meaningful? 
How can we tell whether they are valid? These are the insis- 
tent questions before us. 

Such queries, when they are earnestly posed, deserve 
an answer, and the following pages will attempt one. But even 
more do they require a warning as to the insufficiency of 
words to deal adequately with essentially untranslatable visual 

Before proceeding, one distinction must be made. It 
is necessary to give the term understanding a meaning quite 
different from and vastly superior to that of recognizing. 

The search for subject matter, therefore, must not be 
allowed to monopolize our attention and blunt its focus. The 
more so, because subject matter is not always present in con- 
temporary art, and when it is, it may be assigned to a minor 
role. The major parts are elements which under various 
names, and with varied emphases, have always constituted the 
painter's approach to his art. They are components that can 
be isolated and observed in the art of the past and in that of 
our own time, and it is through them, rather than through an 
obsessive insistence upon recognizability, that we may come 
closer to enjoyment and to true understanding. 


To render on a flat surface what has been seen— 
to represent— has been the painter's task for centuries. 
In a sense, therefore, all visual art is representational, since it 
is the process by which realities are represented through sym- 
bols. However, realities and their symbolic representation are 
two different things. In the span between them, in the field of 
tension that separates the real from the representation of the 
real, art is born. 

When representation bears an easily establishable re- 
lation to the object to which it refers, we speak of realism and 
realist art. Diirer in 16th century Germany and Courbet in 
19th century France were creating works that may be called 
realistic. The impressionists too, Monet, Renoir and others, 
were concerned with direct transformation of the seen into 
the rendered, and therefore fall within this same grouping. 

A great many painters in the last two centuries aimed 
at realism without achieving it. Lacking the clarity of percep- 
tion and the ability to select the essential features from the 
observed, they remain mere naturalists, craftsmen perhaps, 
who know how to imitate but lack the artist's indispensable 
ability to re-create. 

If the 20th century is without a vital realist tradition, 
this is not primarily due to deterioration of the representa- 
tional skills as is sometimes assumed. Rather, this is the effect 
of a philosophical shift that has replaced our former confi- 
dence in the reality of the external world with a concern for 
the unseen reality within us. This new emphasis, then, requires 
an imagery different from one that has used the visible, three- 
dimensional object as a carrier of the true and the real. 

P1ET MONDRIAN 1872-1944 

BLUE fUHYSAlSTHEMlM 1906-08. Water color and ink, 10% x 8 7 M 

Mondrians "Blue Chrysanthemum" is executed on paper with 
pen and watercolors. This small work combines sureness of execution 
with qualities of extreme delicacy. The clarity of structure that we 
observe is an early indication of the revolutionary geometric art that 
Mondrian was later to embark upon. But apart from this, "Blue 
Chrysanthemum" is a meticulous floral representation, and as such an 
excellent example of 20th century realism. 

Most prominent is the round white flower supported by a stem 
from which small and large leaves, exquisitely shaped, grow outivard 

and upward. The effect of richness and volume characterizing the work 
is achieved through a multitude of curved petals arranged in concen- 
tric circles and outlined by quick pen strokes. 

The viewer is first struck by the narrow range of color and the 
delicacy of application. The tender nuances of blue and green, height- 
ened as they are by a white brush, emerge upon closer scrutiny. The 
blue background from which the white flower emerges is also finely 
differentiated, and lends a quality of movement and of organic life to 
the represented subject matter. 


What the artist sees in the observable world is filtered 
through his sensibility, sifted through his intellect and his dis- 
criminative, selective vision before it is returned as a unique, 
personal comprehension of the original observation. An en- 
counter between outward appearance as perceived by the artist 
and his responding inner make-up takes place. The resulting 
imagery becomes a third thing, combining outer view and 
inner condition. 

We may, in general, speak of expressionism or ex- 
pressionist art when the balance between the external and the 
internal vision shifts decidedly toward the latter. Whenever 
this is accompanied by a total absorption or elimination of 
objective appearances, expressionism turns abstract. In ab- 
stract expressionism, meaning is conveyed not through rep- 
resentation or figurative association, but through color, line 
and such other formal means as are at the painter's disposal. 

As examples of historic expressionism, one may re- 
call work by El Greco, Griinewald and many others, although 
the term itself was used only much later to describe an art 
movement of Germanic and Northern European origin that 
took shape in the first decade of this century and spread there- 
after in modified form. 

In modern painting, Vincent Van Gogh was first to 
emphasize this inner reality by imbuing painting that relied 
upon outward impressions with strong emotional overtones. 
Those who followed in his footsteps further intensified the 
expressive component. This first led to a reduction of repre- 
sentation and ultimately to the elimination of all conscious 
interest in the external scene. 

The Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, whose work is 
represented in the Museum Collection more richly than in any 
other museum in the world, is considered to be the first ab- 
stract expressionist. He is, as far as we know, the first painter 
who abandoned a concern for commonly recognizable objects 
in order to create a pictorial order in which color and form, 
free of subject matter, are the sole carriers of artistic meaning. 

Painting — all art — is expression. But not all expres- 
sion is art. Unaided by other qualities, expression, so promi- 
nent in an age of emphasized introspection, will not go beyond 
empty and grotesque manifestations. 


COMPOSITION, JVO. '2 1910. Oil on canvas, 38% x 51%'- 

In Kandinsky' s "Composition, No. 2," expressionist charac- 
teristics predominate. The canvas, furthermore, illustrates Kandinsky's 
transition from representational expressionism to abstract expression- 

Subject matter is neither quite present nor quite absent. With- 
out defining it, the artist presents us with a landscape in which people 
on foot and on horseback move about in varying degrees of agitation. 
Land and sky, trees and other natural formations, rocks and clouds 
perhaps, set the scene. A central group of horses and riders as ivell as 
other figures that seem to stand, sit, march and move in various posi- 
tions and directions provide the action. Natural forms and human 
figures seem to grow from the same soil, and with no more than a 
slight shift of emphasis ue may turn one into the other. 

Dark, heavy lines define the free forms and enclose clear and 

joyous colors. The primaries predominate, and their strength is in- 
creased by the white areas that run in broad currents throughout the 
picture space. The texture is rough, and the surface is made active by 
short strokes moving in different directions, as the figures themselves 

Kandinsky's painting holds to the surface almost as if it were 
a woven rug. An effect of shallow depth is created through converg- 
ing lines, through the device of structuring the painting so as to suggest 
that its bottom edge is nearer to us than its top, and through the use 
of projecting and receding colors. These means, however, are applied 
loosely, often contradicting one another, so that an illusion of the third 
dimension never quite results. We do, however, sense an ambivalence 
between surface and depth that goes hand in hand with the already 
mentioned tension between representation and abstraction. 


The element of decoration is frequently interpreted 
as a sign of weakness in contemporary art. Yet, in a sense, the 
decorative component is as inseparably attached to art as is 
expression. Expression and decoration may, in fact, be seen 
as the two sides of a coin : one relating to the what, the other 
to the how. 

In positive terms, decoration becomes the artist's 
commitment to the elegant solution. It means his sense of for- 
mal propriety, his ability not only to speak but to speak sonor- 
ously and melodiously; it means his awareness of cadence and 
rhythm, his utilization of the lure of texture and his capability 
to cajole and to beguile. Decoration is the artist's appeal to 
the sensuous demands of eye and mind. 

Expression and decoration were not at odds when 
Michelangelo covered the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, nor 
were they when Watteau painted his lyric visions. 

The father of a modern art movement in which the 
decorative element predominates is Paul Gauguin. Later Henri 
Matisse, more than anyone else, contributed to the 20th cen- 
tury its decorative current. Also, Oriental art, with its great 
affinity for the decorative, has exerted a strong influence in 
this direction. 

Decorative painters today, particularly those who ex- 
press themselves abstractly, are accused of producing mean- 
ingless paintings. More often than not, this charge is justified, 
since decoration when divorced from other creative elements 
does not make for art any more than does isolated emphasis 
upon expression. Abuse and incomprehension always render 
painting meaningless artistically. As realism can be reduced 
to naturalism, expressionism to caricature, construction to 
pedantry, so is decoration in inept hands perverted into an 
empty ornamentalism that may at best be acceptable as de- 
sign. In the hands of the skilled and talented artist, however, 
decoration is part of a varied and complex creative repertory. 

KUM1 SUGAI 1921- 

SHMRO 1957. Oil on canvas, 65% x 51' 

Kumi Suga'i was born in Japan and lives in Paris. "Shiro," 
the painting's title, is the Japanese word for white. Nothing tangible 
is represented here. Yet, the inquiring eye will find the ivork far from 

The artist's language is simple and refined. The large, rectan- 
gular canvas area is defined by two descending curves traced in a 
broad, irregular brush stroke. Almost parallel at the outset, each stroke 
turns toward the closest canvas margin, where the line thickens as if 
to indicate that the swift motion that created it came to an abrupt halt. 

A superimposed horizontal crossbar divides the canvas area 
into two halves. It supports an irregular circle, which in turn harbors a 
spheric area. Below the crossbar, a sharp inverted hook balances the 
total composition. 

Suga'i s painting moves on the surface, avoiding, as much con- 
temporary painting does, the illusion of the third dimension. Placed 
against a background in which white predominates, the main struc- 
tural shapes are in various thicknesses of black, while the sphere within 
the circle and the inverted hook provide the main color accents in yel- 

low and blue respectively. The white background is richly sprinkled 
with blue and yellow, as if the dominant color accents had shed them- 
selves of some of their color. A beige-brown hue also gives body to 
the white ground. The surface is textured, and thus provides contrasts 
of concentrated and diluted pigment, leaving edges sharp or blurred. 
The brush strokes, the canvas, the oil paint in various degrees of con- 
centration, in short, the physical nature of the materials, are undis- 
guised and apparent to all. 

The eye freshly trained upon its objective will respond to 
these visible marks of the painting's origin. It will also observe and 
admire the speed of stroke and its sureness; the airy yet monumental 
structure that conveys a sense of lightness and of strength; the restraint 
and delicacy with which the basic beige and white are enlivened with 
sparse color accents. 

Suga'Cs highly controlled and polished art reveals itself, para- 
doxically, through images created with speed and spontaneity. The 
artistic intent is decorative in the sense that it strives for the ideal 
abstract solution. The result, on the other hand, implies meanings 
ichich each viewer is free to formulate. 


There is no painting, no art without organization of 
form, without a successful structure, without the element of 
construction. With some painters, the urge to structure the 
picture space, much in the way an architect approaches his 
task, is primary and therefore determines the appearance of 
the work. Construction need not be obvious at first glance. It 
often exists, without reference to the straight edge or the pre- 
cise geometric outline, as an underlying firmness that bears 
witness to the artist's ability to render thought in clear and 
identifiable form. 

Throughout art history, we can observe the kinship 
of painters who have in common an approach that is predomi- 
nantly structural. It is a kinship that transcends the often ex- 
aggerated difference between representation and abstraction. 
Among the painters of the Italian Renaissance, Piero della 
Francesca is most frequently identified with constructivist 
trends. The classic current of French painting— Poussin in the 
17th century and David, Ingres and Degas in the 19th century 
— can also be seen in these terms. 

Modern reassertion of structure begins with Georges- 
Pierre Seurat and with Paul Cezanne. It continues with cub- 
ism, neo-plasticism, constructivism and other movements that 
all have in common an interest in the work of art as a construc- 
tion. The Collection of the Guggenheim Museum includes 
works by the modern pioneers of construction, and is particu- 
larly rich in examples by Picasso, Braque, Leger, Gleizes, 
Mondrian and others. 

The structural element, for all its indispensability, 
cannot stand alone. Neat arrangements unrelated to observa- 
tion, reflection and emotion remain thin and sterile exercises, 
conveying pedantry rather than order, inanity rather than 


COMPOSITIOX 1934. Oil on canvas, 56% x 78 3 A' 

"Composition" is a fitting title for this large rectangular can- 
vas by the French contemporary Jean Helion. 

Viewing it, we are aware of an ordered geometric construc- 
tion that alludes to subject matter without revealing it and that con- 
tains implicit meanings within the structured surface itself. 

The shapes are set against a neutral background. They are 
geometric and defined by hard edges. Central to the arrangement is a 
portal made of columns and lintel. Joining it on both sides are irregular 
rectangles which lead to a connected system of supporting and sup- 
ported members. Below the central arch a satellite system made up of 
similar components provides the necessary balance. 

The portico assumes its central compositional role primarily 
through a simple contrast. This is achieved by giving the left column 
a clearly accentuated third dimension while all other forms in the 

canvas remain two-dimensional, or at best slightly bulging with im- 
plied volume. 

Color is applied deliberately. It moves subtly between the 
polarities of black and white, which are bridged by various shades of 
grey, leading toward blue-green hues on the one hand and to a warmer 
brown and beige on the other. The primary colors of red, blue and 
yellow and the secondary green are used sparingly for accents. In ad- 
dition to its role as a carrier of emotional content, color assumes a 
structural function. It defines the individual geometric shapes as these 
emerge from the neutral grey, and also produces an effect of limited 
depth by the shallow modeling of individual forms and by the projec- 
tions and recessions that appear when one colored shape is superim- 
posed upon another. 

The result is a deliberate balance, in which varied and inter- 
acting shapes create a moment of exquisite harmony. 


The element of fantasy in art lies on the reverse side 
of reason. It draws upon caprice and magic, upon visions and 
dreams, and creates a world in which space and time, cause 
and effect, and other contrivances of logic dissolve in an extra- 
rational, intuitive order. The painter's ability to think is re- 
inforced by his capacity to dream. 

The often macabre imagination of such Flemish 
painters as Peter Breughel and Jerome Bosch, or the visionary 
painting of the Englishman William Blake, are examples of an 
art in which fantasy predominates. 

Among the moderns, Henri Rousseau has created in 
his painting a world that is naive and childlike. Odilon Redon 
and Marc Chagall are painters of the 20th century with whom 
fantasy prevails. They all are represented in the Collection of 
the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 

After the First World War, surrealism becomes the 
movement that relates most obviously to the element of fan- 
tasy. Eventually, its pictorial language cuts across the bound- 
ary separating representation from abstraction. With or with- 
out the aid of subject matter, surrealism evokes the verities of 
an irrational world. 

Extra-rational, fantastic inventions often stand be- 
yond the acknowledged limits of art and therefore are not 
easily subject to qualitative judgment. Unrelated to art, fan- 
tasy may produce mere eccentricity. However, when assimi- 
lated and combined with other elements, fantasy will enrich 
the painter's vocabulary and deepen the meaning of art. 

PAUL KLEE 1879-1940 

Mitt BALLOON, VI 179 1922. Oil on gauze mounted on board, 12 x /z x 12Va' 

In Paul Klees small, square canvas, a deep red balloon, com- 
plete with gear, is suspended in mid-air over a cityscape that is at once 
fantastic and believable, enchanted and enchanting. 

The circular balloon itself is first to draw our attention. There- 
after, by means of other red accents, triangular and rectangular, our 
eye explores the remaining portions of the concentrated small picture 
space. It encounters the scaffolding of a man-made scene: a house, per- 
haps a street, behind which ive sense a city or the ivorld at large. \et 
this scaffolding consists of nothing more than an indication of possibly 
a roofed structure in the foreground and, recessed in the picture space, 
what could be a door and a suggestion of other buildings. This scene, 
convincing and readable in its totality but indefinable in its parts, is 
conjured up through a few lines, a few two-dimensional geometric 

forms, squares, rectangles, triangles, all bound together by a color 
scheme of infinite subtlety, sophistication and richness. 

Ground and sky, walls and doors, are intimated by colors that 
evoke rather than depict these realities in our minds. We are aware not 
only of objects, but also of a concentrated human presence that ema- 
nates from the scene. 

Klee in the "Red Balloon" has achieved weighty results with 
the slightest of means. Through a bare suggestion of subject matter, 
fullness of association; through concentration upon a small area, great 
monumentality ; through the use of a fragile texture, solid permanence; 
through reduction of form to a geometric scheme, richest expression; 
and through the release of the element of fantasy, an acute sense of 



MANDOLIN AND GUITAR 1924. Oil on canvas, 56Vs x 79 3 A' 

Picasso's masterpiece combines in varying degrees all the 
elements described as relevant to the understanding of modern art. 
Representation, expression, decoration, construction and fantasy, first 
discussed separately, must now be recombined in our minds to experi- 
ence their full impact through their simultaneous presence. 

A mandolin, a guitar, a dish with three apples, and a jug rest 
on a curved, sturdily supported table which is covered by a white, 
yellow and blue patterned tablecloth. The still-life arrangement stands 
in a room in which a pink tile floor, walls covered with a brown pat- 
tern and a blue and white door in the right background are the most 
prominent features. The open window allows us to see a terrace railing 
and beyond it the blue skies of a Mediterranean landscape. 

The expressive and decorative elements are so closely related 
as to become inseparable. While, unquestionably, the point of depar- 
ture remains external, the observed subject matter is radically trans- 
formed by the artist's inner comprehension of the still-life subject. At 

the same time, the work is so carefully balanced as to become unfail- 
ingly decorative in the best sense of this term. 

Most conspicuous, as with most cubist art, is the element of 
construction. Without limiting himself to a composition of straight- 
edged geometric forms, Picasso shapes each plane and each volume 
with absolute consistency. The various aspects of the instruments, in- 
cluding their colored shadows, each portion of the room and even the 
sky itself, are so clearly formed that they could be reconstructed in a 
three-dimensional model. The individual items are combined in a 
relationship of such vital logic and are kept together by an order so 
tense and unbreakable as to make the slightest shift of any part un- 

Finally, the objects are seen through a vision that combines 
the utmost sophistication with the unprejudiced and direct view of a 
child. It is as if no one else had seen the full implication of a still-life 
arrangement that carries within it a sense of the whimsical, the joyous, 
and the mysteriously ominous, all at once. 


The terms discussed under the headings representa- 
tion, expression, decoration, construction and fantasy are 
relevant to 20th century painting. There is no movement, no 
stylistic departure that cannot be related to one or a number 
of these. However, their isolation from one another is entirely 
artificial. While one or the other component may predominate 
and thereby impress itself upon our consciousness, these ele- 
ments exist in undiluted form only in painting of lesser quality. 
In our examples they co-exist, each complementing and en- 
riching the others. 

The concepts themselves are presented here for pur- 
poses of orientation. They are frail vessels, meant to be 
discarded after having conveyed those who can use them 
downstream into a wide and wordless sea of silent forms. 



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5000 copies of COMMENTARY 2/61 

designed by Herbert Matter 

have been printed by Sterlip Press, Inc., New York, 

in October 1961 

for the Trustees of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation